By Ian Ridley
The then President of the Football Conference Bill King stood to address the AGM. The board, he said, had decided to introduce a salary cap for the following season. It was the best way, he added, to avoid the growing incidences of clubs going bust. Cue uproar in the room, led by the then owner of Kettering Town, Imraan Ladak.
I was there as chairman of Weymouth, having been invited back in when the club was a basket base in 2009 and naively believed I could help. I was all for the salary cap. I had walked back into my home town club to find a debt of £750,000 that would prove beyond me or anyone else. Soon the club, after my short-lived second stay, would be in a CVA.
The move for a salary cap was thrown out that summer. Two years later, Kettering would be in administration. Like Weymouth, they have just about recovered now and are pushing for promotion from the Evo-Stik South Premier, though their ground is gone and so is Ladak.
Since then, the Conference, now National League, has flirted with the salary cap but never quite found the courage to implement it, despite having been pioneers in so many other areas of the game, not least in allowing artificial pitches, which has proved the making of Sutton United, for example, and the remaking of Maidstone United.
Instead, the league has these days what is called the Budget Monitoring Scheme, which requires clubs to submit a projected budget ahead of a season to an Independent Financial Review Panel. If that panel has concerns about any club, they may also ask for a mid-season budget.
In addition, clubs are required to submit financial figures every quarter and are not allowed to take on additional debts without special dispensation.
Now, this is all seemingly very sensible and diligent.
It just makes you wonder, then, how Hartlepool United, Chester and now Dagenham and Redbridge – where Glenn Tamplin circled before settling on Billericay – are in so much trouble.
Just as October is sacking season for managers when optimism gives way to reality, so February is the cruellest month for those trying to run clubs. There is no more cup revenue; the bumper Christmas and New Year gate money is gone. Postponements play havoc with cash flow.
Thus there is sympathy here for all those daring to try and run clubs. It is just that sometimes, clubs need saving from themselves. There is also sympathy for the Conference in working with, and trying to keep in business, such big clubs as the three above rather than come down heavily on them.
Hartlepool seem the worst case, since they will also be receiving Football League parachute money this season – and the full sum of around £250,000 after the League voted three years ago to award 100 per cent in the first year down.
Chester, as a phoenix club of under eight years, have clearly got their sums wrong and generous fans and celebrity matches will only staunch the bleeding for so long. Meanwhile, Dagenham and Redbridge are suffering from the age-old problem of a benefactor pulling the plug.
While all different cases, they have in common – indeed, with all Non-League clubs – the fact that player wages are the biggest cost for any club. Rules also mean that players stand alongside the taxman as first in line to be paid.
The best run clubs impose their own salary caps, even in the Premier League. Manchester United, who have the highest wage bill in world football, paid out £232 million to players in 2016 – still much less than 50 per cent of their £515 million income, which yielded a profit after costs of just under £70 million.
Leaving aside the arguments about the obscene inequities of the elite and the grass roots following the new TV deal, and moans about Gordon Taylor’s salary, clubs should take heed of such good husbandry and not expect white knights and handouts.
We are far from perfect at Salisbury FC, where I am vice-chairman, but we look to keep player wages around 40 per cent of income, at most, as we have high overheads, including an expensive stadium.
There are cash flow concerns at times, but directors make donations – not the cursed loans – to ease the problems in the short term before sums balance at season’s end.
They have to balance. As a phoenix club we are not allowed an overdraft and so cannot owe money.
Now, there are many misconceptions about a salary cap. It is not to issue every club with the same maximum sum. It is more about setting the correct percentage of revenue generated, to keep the club solvent and retain a war chest.
And so the more a club makes through its hard – and creative – commercial work, which we are still rebuilding at Salisbury, the more it can spend on what it really wants to spend it on: better players. That is proper meritocracy.
Cue all the counter-arguments and denigrating of the idea. That’s fine. Debate is healthy. It is, for example, true to say that a salary cap is easy in principle but hard to implement.
Still, it is worth remembering an old adage – if you do what you always did, you get what you always got.
A decade on, and a new bunch of struggling clubs further on, I look forward to the issue being on the agenda at the National League’s AGM any summer now.
Good luck to two ex-players of St Albans City, where I also had a couple of spells on the board, who are heading in different directions.
Veteran Barry Hayles, ex-everywhere, is looking to lead Windsor to Wembley in the FA Vase, their quarter-final against Stockton Town taking place in the North East next Saturday.
The final is on May 21 – four days after Barrington’s 46th birthday. Meanwhile, Inih Effiong, ex-many places also, has moved from the National League with Woking to the Scottish Premier with Ross County.
I always thought it a little harsh of a St Albans manager who once described him as: “a world beater one week, an egg beater the next”.
Tagged Ian Ridley